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7 Tips for Traveling in Spain

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

The beautiful Alhambra towering over Granada

Spain has much to offer: incredible museums, jaw-dropping architecture, inspiring music, warm and hospitable people, beautiful weather, and an excellent public transportation system. This makes it one of my top recommendations in Europe. Their updated high-speed rail system now makes it incredibly fast and easy to zip from one major city to another, which makes it a great destination for a one to two-week (or more) vacation.

Now that my son is a major crawler, I was a little worried about traveling with him, knowing that he would be itching to move around and not be as willing to sit in his stroller for long stretches of time. And, I was partially right. It was easier to tour around all day when he was five months and perfectly happy to hang out in the Ergobaby while we traversed Italy. But, luckily, it wasn’t that difficult in Spain. We made a few more pit stops so he could stretch his muscles and we built in some siestas so he could explore our hotel room, but all in all he ended up being a very good travel toddler and made me excited about continuing our nomadic lifestyle in the coming months and years.

In future posts, I will highlight each of the cities we visited and give recommendations on what to do in a short amount of time. But, first I wanted to give a few general tips for traveling through Spain (with or without kids).

1. Travel off-season

This is often a tip for travelers going to popular countries, but it applies especially to Spain. We went in February and while it wasn’t the super sunny and warm Spain we know and love, it actually turned out to be the perfect time of year for us to explore the cities and avoid hordes of tourists and excessive heat. The temperature was about 50 degrees most of the time we were there, getting warmer in the afternoon sun and a bit cooler in the early morning. But, we saved a ton of money on comfy hotels in great locations, never waited in line for museums or major sights (the only thing we had to book in advance was our visit to Alhambra in Granada), and essentially enjoyed the country with its citizens rather than tourists. I can’t recommend this enough. Since most of the US and Europe is cold in the winter anyway, it helps make the season bearable when touring interesting cities, visiting beautiful museums, and basking in some not too intense sunshine in majestic piazzas.

2. Hostals are not your typical hostels

We stayed in a couple of hostals (Spanish for hostel), which are hostels in the sense that you can have multiple beds in a room, but most of them are private rooms, with private bathrooms, cleaning service, and all the amenities you would normally get in a hotel room. The only difference between a hostal and hotel is that some of them do not have restaurants attached, so you can’t eat breakfast there, and there won’t be the luxury additions like a spa or pool. But, if you are traveling with kids and want a more spacious room with more beds without having to pay hotel prices, these are a great choice. One night we stayed in five star hotel and though the bed was more comfortable, we actually had way less space than in our beloved hostals, which were located in the best spots in each city. So, check out tripadvisor for reviews and don’t be afraid to book a hostal in Spain.

3. Get the Renfe Spain pass

Most travelers in Europe have heard of the Eurail pass that allows you to hop on and off trains for a limited amount of time in select countries at a set price. However, the Renfe Spain Pass is the best bet when doing Spain. You can buy it at the train station or online (though the train station might be optimal so you can also book your reservations for where you want to go on your trip). A normal adult pass is 169 and it lets you take 4 trips (e.g., Barcelona — Madrid — Granada — Seville — Madrid). Most of these trains are super high speed, going 300 KM per hour, which means you can zip across the country must faster than with a car and avoid the hassle of finding parking in the city. We bought our passes at the Barcelona train station and booked our reservations (reservations can be cancelled up to 15 minutes before the train leaves and the credit will go back on your pass, so it doesn’t hurt to book ahead of time to make sure you get the train you want). Children under 4 travel for free, and older children have a discount. You can also get a pass that allows for 6, 8, 10, or 12 train rides (note that if you have to change trains, each ride counts as 1). The only hitch is you have to make your reservations for the trains at the train station, so I would just make them all in one go and change if needed. Also, even though babies travel for free, you also need to make reservations for them, so don’t forget to mention that when you are booking. Plus, don’t forget to take a picture of your Spain Pass in case it gets stolen or lost! With the number, they can easily replace the pass for you.

Note: I would use the pass only for long, more expensive trips. I wouldn’t use one of the journeys to go from Madrid to Toledo which is only about 30 roundtrip.

4.  Do more day-tripping than hotel-hopping

My rule of thumb is usually a minimum of two nights at one hotel, but I prefer three. In cities like Barcelona or Madrid, you can easily take day trips to see other parts of Spain (Toledo is only 30 mins by train from Madrid), and avoid having to lug your suitcases from city to city. Plus, the big cities have so much to offer that one day doesn’t do them justice. Less is more here… so instead of trying to make a new city each day, get to know the country better by spending more time in each place and saving something for another trip!

5.  Make lunch your big meal

Spanish restaurants have some pretty amazing lunch deals where you will get a first, second, dessert, and drink for 9-10. The portions are generous and filling and since Spaniards offer lunch until 4 p.m., you can easily do a later lunch, make it your big meal of the day and just enjoy a few tapas for ‘dinner’ instead of waiting to eat at the official dinner time of 9 p.m. (most restaurants don’t even open until 8 p.m). Tapas bars offer food from 5 or 6 p.m., so you can join Spaniards in their ‘appetizer’ phase, try a few small dishes, and get to bed at a decent hour.

6. Look for tapas deals

Tapas used to be offered for free with the purchase of a drink and some places, especially in Granada, still adhere to this old tradition. We actually didn’t know this and one evening in Granada we popped into a tapas bar, ordered two bottles of water and two tapas, which were actually dinner sized portions, and walked away with a bill of 3 . Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised. You can check online for tapas bars that still offer these deals. Otherwise, a tapa will cost between 1 and 5 (depending on the place and size) and a drink about 2. Still, a pretty cheap dinner with quality food.

7. Learn Spanish!

Unlike many other countries in Europe, English has not become the de-facto official language in Spain. Many people do speak English (especially at the hotels and at more touristy restaurants), but it is not as ubiquitous as in other European countries. So, brush up on your Spanish, download a translator app, and be prepared to challenge yourself a bit with some new phrases. I, shamefully, do not yet speak Spanish but I was lucky enough to get by with Italian wherever I ran into people who didn’t speak English. So, if you speak Italian or Portuguese, that will also help!

 

Top Ten Tips – Traveling With a Baby

All top ten tip posts you will also be able to find in the top ten page at the top of the blog for easier access.

Plan out your perfect travel day. Now, cut it in half.

I know when you are visiting someplace new, you want to cram in as much as possible and see every single sight recommended by your guidebook. Let me tell you right now, with a kid, that’s not going to happen. Everything with a baby takes longer; it’s a fact of life. So, write down all of the things you would see in a day if you were alone, and then cut out half of them. This will give you a realistic sightseeing goal.

A baby carrier is your best friend. Don’t leave the hotel without it.

Depending on which country you are in, you may not even want to bring the stroller with you. Many sights in a place like Rome are inaccessible with a set of wheels, so a baby carrier will be your best bet. Even if you do bring the stroller out, there may be sights with many stairs or tiny elevators. I have found most restaurants or hotels will allow you to leave your carriage there for a couple of hours so you can just strap the baby to your belly and be on your merry way. This brings us to #3…

Don’t be afraid to play the haggard parent card.

I know, who wants to be that annoying person who goes straight to the front of the line? Or, who has to ask a restaurant to please watch your carriage? Or, who asks for assistance in getting a stroller up the stairs? But, just get rid of that inhibition and you will find traveling is much more fun when you don’t have to do all of the grunt work yourself. So, flash the haggard parent look of misery, march to the front, and take advantage of the few perks that come with the job.

Build in naps.

Everyone is happier when they are rested. That includes babies. Sleeping in the stroller isn’t quite the same as sleeping in their beds, so if possible, build your day around breaks. Get out of the midday sun, take a rest after a long lunch, and get refreshed to enjoy some sightseeing when its cooler and the streets are less crowded.

Avoid tour groups.

Find out when tour groups are out and stay in. Usually around 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. are the busiest tour group times. Now, obviously you won’t be inside the whole time, but schedule your naps within this time period and go enjoy lunch or some obscure site until the crowd thins. This makes getting into top sights much easier and much more enjoyable. Sunset is actually a beautiful time to see sights and it won’t be as hectic as peak tour hours.

Download audio guides.

Unless your baby does really well with tours, I would avoid having to move at a group’s pace to get information on various sites. There are some great audio guides out there (Rick Steves produces many on Europe that you can download for FREE) that will allow you to learn, while not having to worry about needing to stop and feed or change a baby in the middle of the tour. Just connect to wifi at your hotel or apartment rental, download the audio guide you want for that day on your phone, and bring your headphones!

Let your baby participate.

I don’t believe in waiting for your baby to get fussy before taking him out of the stroller and comforting him. So, when you head out to dinner or lunch, bring your baby out immediately and let him look around, engage with other diners, and play with you. This will help him avoid getting frustrated or feeling left out and you may even find it a great icebreaker to meet the locals and engage in some cross-cultural banter.

Plan some picnics.

A nice dinner is always enjoyable (but let’s be honest, a little less enjoyable when breastfeeding a baby and trying to cut your food with one hand). So, planning a picnic for some days can be very freeing. Now, when I say picnic, I don’t mean spend your whole morning preparing and packing up food. You are on vacation, so relax. But, throwing a blanket or towel under the baby carriage and picking up a couple of sandwiches at a bakery and a bottle of screw-top wine with some plastic cups at the grocery store is completely doable and cheap. Then, find a pretty area, let the baby roll around and play, and enjoy some nice local food without worrying about spit-up, diaper changes, or breastfeeding. You can do anything you want in the privacy of your picnic.

Always bring your diaper bag and changing pad. Always.

I know, this is basically a given. But, just in case you were thinking of running out with just a couple of diapers and wipes in your purse, turn back. Many places are not baby changing friendly, meaning you will be hard pressed to find changing tables in most touristy cities. We have changed our baby in the Roman forum, in front of the Vatican, on park benches – you name it. A changing pad makes it all possible, as do those extra onesies you packed in case of an explosion.

Churches (and the like) are your friends.

Church is a great refuge, not just for souls but also for haggard parents. Whether you need to escape the heat, find a quiet place to feed the baby, or change a diaper – churches are great to go to and Europe is abundant with them. Now, I wouldn’t recommend changing a diaper during mass, but you will find many nearly empty churches when traveling through most European cities, so take advantage and enjoy some beautiful artwork while keeping the little one happy.

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